Although most ethnic groups do not like to be thought of as different, they do come to enjoy the benefits that come with being labeled as a minority. Affirmative action is a program initiated to try and bridge the gap between white Americans and the minorities that reside in America. In addition, bilingual education is constantly an issue in Southern California, especially when choosing political candidates. In the two books I will be examining, Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, both characters in the stories are criticized by their own ethnic groups for not following the path that their parents have laid out for them. Protag, the main character in Invisible Man, chooses to join an organization called the Brotherhood, instead of a similar organization which is made up of all black men. Rodriguez decides to take a stand against affirmative action and bilingual education, two issues which Hispanics have almost always been in favor of. However, the decisions by these two characters to go against the values widely held by members of their ethnic groups causes a great deal of tension. People want to question how devoted the characters are to the cause. Both characters went against the norm and made choices which brought criticism from members of their ethnic groups, but their choices ultimately led to the strengthening of their groups culture in society. First we will look at what may have influenced the character s choices, followed by the designation of being labeled a scholarship boy may have played in their decisions. Finally we will look at what exactly they did for their ethnic group and some of the differences that exist between the two characters.
Upon his arrival in Harlem after his dismissal from college, Protag became aware of the two groups that were concerned with changing the social conditions in New York City. The first group was led by Ras the Exhorter and was a much more radical group. One woman was quotes as saying, “His hoodlums would attack and denounce the white meat of a roasted chicken” (Ellison 35). The other group in New York City was known as the Brotherhood and was a much less radical organization which was predominately by white men. These two groups often found themselves in the midst of controversy, both in the public eye and between each other. So what exactly was it that made Protag choose to become a very active member of the Brotherhood? In fact, as a result of his decision he faced continuous harassment from Ras and his people. Also, Protag became scared when walking alone at night, turning around to see if someone was following him. This is just one example of how strained race relations were in the borough of Harlem.
The first event in Protag s life that can be said to have influences his decision to join the Brotherhood was his experience while at college, most notably his interactions with Dr. Bledsoe. Take his job for example, Protag was appointed to drive around Mr. Norton, a white trustee to the college. Dr. Bledsoe continually emphasized the critical role that trustees play in the college. Without them and their donations, it seems the college would no longer exist. Dr. Bledsoe, who is a black man, also lets Protag know the importance of maintaining a good relationship with the white trustees. This is why Dr. Bledsoe reacts so violently to the incident involving Mr. Norton and the Golden Day. However, Protag also begins to realize that the relationship Dr. Bledsoe has with the trustees is not always based on trust. When reprimanding Protag for the Golden Day incident, Bledsoe says “the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie” (Ellison 139). The entire process of going to college and interacting with trustees and Bledsoe has shown Protag the black man is reliant on the white man to succeed. After all, Bledsoe has continuously stressed the importance of the trustees, of which presumably most were white. Instead of looking at white people as the enemy, for a black man to succeed he needed to maintain a business relationship with them.
When one reads Invisible Man, the Jim Trueblood incident is always called into question. Most people wonder why this character was even put in the book at all. Although Norton had the strongest reaction to the encounter with Trueblood, the person who gained the most is Protag. He saw a man who was the exact opposite of Bledsoe, isolated and living in poverty. Ellison gives us little insight as to what thoughts went through Protag s mind after the meeting with Trueblood. Much of this part of the novel focuses on the events at the Golden Day as well as Norton s reaction. What Protag saw in Trueblood was a prefect illustration of what could happen if things went wrong. Trueblood was actually paid to stay away from people, nobody wanted to come into contact with him. This scared Protag and made him listen even more closely to the words of Bledsoe. Protag thought that since they were the same color they should have some similarities, but they were actually polar opposites. It made him aware that maintaining a positive relationship with whites was crucial if you wanted to be successful.
Upon his arrival in Harlem, Protag was able to witness the day to day hardships that black people faced as they struggled to survive. More specifically, he was exposed to Lucius Brockway while working at the Liberty Paint factory. While working in the far reaches of the factory basement, Brockway and Protag were enemies at once. Brockway feared Protag was going to overhaul him and make him become part of a union. Brockway becomes even more defensive when he finds out Protag walked in on a union meeting on the way to get his lunch. “I knowed you belonged to that bunch of troublemaking foreigners! I knowed it! Git out of my basement,” screamed Brockway (Ellison 224). Once again Brockway was seen by Protag as another black man who failed to cooperate with the white men he worked with. He feared them and his worries were for the most part unfounded. He failed to listen to the union and their only concern was looking out for workers and making conditions safe. Instead Brockway choose to hide out in his basement and not come in contact with anyone who wanted to help him. Now Protag began to see the big picture. Bledsoe was the one successful black man he knew and he kept up a good relationship with his white partners (not necessarily as friends). Trueblood and Brockway failed to establish a relationship with the white man, and were both considered failures by society.
Rodriguez was also faced with a decision that would effect him for a lifetime and that was where to teach after graduating from Stanford. Offers began to flow in from schools all over the world, including some offers from Ivy League schools. His decision not to teach anywhere, but to instead become a freelance writer was as much a tribute to his culture as it was a detriment. Obviously Hispanics were upset that Rodriguez did not decide to go and teach somewhere like Yale, it would have led to a great deal of exposure for Hispanics everywhere. However, Rodriguez did not want the job because of his minority status, he wanted it because he was the best candidate for the job. But for a Hispanic to reject the foundation which affirmative action was built upon, it was although he was letting down his entire race. Like Protag, this was not an answer Rodriguez came up with in one day, a number of events in his life led to his decision to reject affirmative action.
Rodriguez s decision not to speak Spanish in the classroom (and minimize its use at home) is the first point in the novel where he says that he does not want to be different anymore. Spanish would be nothing more than a barrier between him and his schoolmates. He did not think bilingual education would work in public schools because it would do just that, make Hispanic students feel different. Rodriguez is talking about supporters of bilingual education when he says, “What they seem not to recognize is that, as a socially disadvantaged child, I considered Spanish to be a private language” (Rodriguez 19). However, it was rare for a Hispanic in California to reject the idea of bilingual education. Rodriguez felt a point needed to be made, and teaching bilingual education would only hamper the development of socially disadvantaged children by himself. He was willing to put himself out on a limb and stand up to the criticism that would follow.
Now Rodriguez was fully aware that he was letting go some of his roots in his culture, striving to assimilate into American culture instead of being seen as different. He tried to get this point across to his Hispanic students when he decided against teaching an “ethnic” literature course at a community center located in a predominately Spanish area. His answer surprised his students, as well as himself, and he responded by saying “I didn t think that there was such a thing as minority literature” (Rodriguez 161). He refers to Roots saying, “That book tells us more about his difference from illiterate, tribal ancestors than it does about his link to them” (Rodriguez 161). Instead of concentrating on the differences of ethnic literature, Rodriguez again makes a statement by saying that no such thing really exists. He shifts the focus from being different to concentrating on fitting in. Minorities should not want to stand out and be different, and should instead focus their attention on trying to fit in. In his own words, Rodriguez was becoming a coconut, someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside. To his peers, they were aware of this well before him.
Two other people also played a role in Rodriguez s decision not to accept an offer to teach college. The first, Allan Bakke, successfully sued the University of California saying that he was passed over so the school could fill its quota of minority students. This was the first case of someone successfully showing that reverse discrimination does exist. “I supported his claim. I continued to speak out in opposition to affirmative action. I publicly scorned the university presidents call for a nonwhite leadership class” (Rodriguez 166). Obviously, Rodriguez was very passionate in his beliefs, but other Hispanics still continued to be outraged by this “coconut.” One day a fellow classmate came to Rodriguez s office to let him know he was not being treated fairly. He was doing as well as Rodriguez but yet got no offers from any school. Rodriguez began to feel his pain and felt that he was simply taking the spot because he was Hispanic. As a result Rodriguez did not accept any of the numerous offers he received and instead went home to pursue a career as a freelance writer.